Virginia Attorney General Says Every Vote Counts Despite ‘Dangerous’ Trump Rhetoric

By Megan Schiffres

November 7, 2020

During post-election town hall, Mark Herring said residents can trust in Virginia’s election system.

RICHMOND-Every vote counts. People should trust in Virginia’s system, Attorney General Mark Herring said, despite what he called ‘dangerous’ rhetoric from the White House which is undermining the electoral process. 

“We had a lot of what I consider very dangerous rhetoric coming from the President himself about the lack of integrity in our electoral system, especially mail-in ballots,” Herring said. 

Speaking at a digital town hall meeting Thursday, Herring pointed out that President Trump makes accusations, but never shows any proof to back it up. Trump has on multiple occasions questioned the legitimacy of the November election, including during the first 2020 presidential debate when he also refused to say whether he would concede if he lost the election. The president has also repeatedly spread misinformation, casting doubt on whether mail-in ballots should be counted at all, arguing without evidence that they enable voter fraud. 

On November 4, Eric Trump retweeted a video that claimed to show someone in Virginia Beach burning allegedly pro-Trump ballots. Election officials in Virginia Beach have since confirmed that the ballots being burned in the video were not real, but sample ballots. 

Later that day, Herring said in a virtual panel on the election that Virginians should ignore the President and trust that their vote will be counted. 

“In the face of the President’s rhetoric undermining confidence in our electoral system, people should not buy into that misinformation. We can have confidence in Virginia and the integrity of our election system,” Herring said. 

Voter intimidation

Also during the first presidential debate, Trump encouraged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” causing election officials across the country to fear that his supporters might organize militias to intimidate voters at the polls. 

Only one case of voter intimidation was reported in Virginia on Election Day. That came from Norfolk, where a 63-year-old man called in a bomb threat to a local elementary school.

However, even before Trump directed his followers to intimidate voters at the polls, a group of his supporters caused problems for early voting in Fairfax. That’s what drove Herring to action, he said.

“When I saw that there were reports coming out of Fairfax County on the second day of early-voting, that could have been voter intimidation. There were some voters that felt it was serious enough they asked for some escorts back to their cars,” Herring said. “I very quickly issued a legal opinion so that everyone would know that there are state and federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation and voter harassment.”

Under Virginia Code 24.2-607, it is illegal for anyone to hinder or delay a qualified voter from entering or leaving a polling place. People at the polls in Virginia are also prohibited from “conducting himself in a noisy or riotous manner at or about the polls so as to disturb the election” under Virginia Code 24.2-607

In Virginia it is a misdemeanor to prevent a voter from casting a ballot and to use threats, bribery, or other means in violation of the law to influence how a person votes. It’s also a Class 5 felony to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, intimidate, prevent, or hinder any citizen from voting. 

Despite these restrictions, it is not illegal to bring a weapon to polling places in Virginia. 

“There are laws that prohibit possessing firearms at certain locations like schools, courthouses and oftentimes polling locations are in those locations. They don’t change just because of the election,” said Herring. “Where its not in a school or a courthouse, there are also laws that prohibit brandishing firearms at a polling location 

Though they were ultimately unnecessary, Herring says the Commonwealth was prepared to fight attempted voter intimidation in the courts. 

“As Election Day got closer, we continued to see social media posts that were concerning, that suggested maybe there would be voter intimidation militias at the polls. And so we were prepared. We had an interdisciplinary team of lawyers and professional staff ready to go into court. We sent a training video to local law enforcement and local elections officials about the laws that were in place and the tools they had should an incident arise. But thankfully, that didn’t arise. And I think overall, the election in Virginia went very smoothly.” 

Counting every absentee vote

Though most major news outlets have declared Joe Biden the winner in Virginia, the  Commonwealth hasn’t actually finalized its vote count. 

“On election night there is a count but that’s really unofficial and in Virginia the process takes a week after that. So on Wednesday, the day after Election Day in Virginia, all of the local electoral boards get back together, the elections people get together, and they go over those votes again very meticulously to make sure that the count is accurate. Sometimes in the heat of an election night, when you’re adding up things, a number will get transposed. And mistakes like that will be corrected. The certification doesn’t even happen until a week after that,” Herring said. 

According to Herring, Virginia received a record number of absentee ballots this year.

Under Virginia Code 24.2-709.1, electronic absentee ballots can be scanned and counted as they are received without initiating any ballot count totals before Election Day.

“Democracy is definitely worth the wait to make sure that everybody that wants to vote can vote and all of their votes count,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who spoke on the election panel with Herring. 

Meg Schiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at [email protected].

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